2:47 p.m. October 15, 2013

Chris Christie's Pig Pro Quo

On May 31, 2011, Governor Chris Christie made an appearance at his son's baseball game at St. Joseph Regional High School in Bergen County.

He arrived, it was hard not to notice, aboard a brand new, 55-foot long, $12.5 million AugustaWestland helicopter purchased with taxpayer money. In a statement to The Star-Ledger, Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak said the helicopter was "a means of transportation that is occasionally used as the schedule demands." Governor Christie did not have any public events on his schedule May 31, but he did have a private meeting at 6:30p.m.

It was a meeting that Christie clearly did not want to miss.

That evening, a crowd of television crews waited outside the governor's mansion. Behind Drumthwacket's gates, Governor Christie and a group of Iowa campaign donors were having dinner. The seven businessmen described by the Des Moines Register as "The Iowa heavy hitters" had boarded a private jet earlier that day, reportedly with the intention of convincing Christie to enter the 2012 presidential race. But Christie's mind had already been made up. He repeated to his guests what he had told the public: his commitment to New Jersey was unwavering and he would not enter the field.

One dinner guest, Republican consultant Bill Spadea, told the press , "He’s said he’s not going to run, so he’s not going to run. I take him at his word. But for him and the Iowa contingent, it doesn’t hurt to position potentially for 2016. He’s a rising star in the Republican Party. He’s not going away anytime soon.”

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Two years after the meeting, an apparently uncontroversial bill, supported by 91% of voters in a Mason-Dixon Poll, passed both chambers of New Jersey's legislature in a nearly unanimous vote. S.1921 would ban gestation crates, which are used to contain breeding sows. At roughly two feet by seven feet, the metal cages are only slightly larger than the animal's body, making it impossible for them to turn around, lie down or move more than an inch forward or an inch backward.

For well over a year, the Humane Society of the United States has pushed for a ban on the practice in the Garden State. Hard data about just how many New Jersey pig farms employ the crates is hard to come by. "We have not been able to get a straight answer from the pork producers or from the farm bureau. They are an industry that lacks transparency," HSUS Public Policy Manager Matt Dominguez told me. But they are thought to be used "sparingly, if at all," meaning the ban would be more of a symbolic gesture to "remove the welcome mat" and set a precedent for the rest of the country. An estimated 60 to 70 percent of breeding sows in the United States are housed in gestation crates, but increasingly, under pressure from consumers, large companies like McDonalds, Burger King and Safeway are vowing to phase out their purchase of pork from producers who employ them.

When S.1921 arrived on Christie's desk June 27, it seemed obvious that the Governor would sign it. New Jersey had a respectable track record on animal rights, and this method of farming wasn’t even thought to be used in the state. Of all political risks to take, rejecting this apparently token measure seemed a highly unlikely one.

Christie vetoed the bill.

* *

"[Christie] has no values. His only value is himself," S.1921's sponsor, Democratic State Senator Raymond Lesniak, told me. He repeated the line, pausing dramatically after each word: "He has no values," adding, "He has no moral compass whatsoever."

Although the Hawkeye State donors left Christie's home two years ago, Lesniak is sure that they have never left his mind. The governor's decision, he charges, was directly linked to his presidential ambitions. "There's no other logic behind his veto…" he said. "When the Department of Agriculture says, 'Well, we don't use gestation crates in New Jersey,' why wouldn't he then ban them? Except for the fact that the first Republican presidential caucus is in Iowa..."

On May 15 of this year, the Des Moines-based National Pork Producers Council goaded Christie not to sign the legislation into law. "This bill is a solution in search of a problem," said NPPC President Howard Hill. "This is about HSUS using New Jersey to advance its national animal-rights agenda, and we hope Gov. Christie won't go along with it."

Last year, as hearings took place on the Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments 0f 2012, the NPPC expressed concern. They feared that the call for a national standard for cage sizes for egg-laying hens, would mean that the pork industry was next. Speaking to the National Journal, NPPC spokesman Dave Warner said, "So our animals can't turn around for the 2.5 years that they are in the stalls producing piglets… I don't know who asked the sow if she wanted to turn around… The only real measure of their well-being we have is the number of piglets per-birth, and that's at an all-time high."

On an overcast October day at Brodhecker Farms in Newton, New Jersey, Phil Brodhecker expanded on the NPPC's notion that the main indicator of an animal's health is the number of her offspring. "In any agriculture, the objective of the farmer is to keep that animal in the most comfortable, productive environment they can." Brodhecker leads me and his Redbone Coonhound, Ruby, into a dark barn full of his sheep. Ruby charges down the hay-filled path, jumping up to meet one of the sheep eye to eye. As Brodhecker shows me some of his equipment, he explains, "If the animal's not comfortable, if they're stressed, if they're in any way not in a happy, comfortable environment… that animal's not going to produce."

Inside of a warehouse that looks like Home Depot and greets visitors with a sticker on the door reading "NO BIG GOVERNMENT," Brodhecker stands in front of a refrigerator full of his domestic livestock. He pulls out a chicken and some large pieces of beef as he tells me, "The governor is closely related to the Secretary of Ag. in New Jersey. The Secretary of Ag. is an appointed position by the governor."

While technically true that the Secretary of Agriculture is an appointed position, the leading candidate is nominated by the State Board of Agriculture, not the governor. The governor simply approves the nomination.

Fiddling with the piece of beef in his hand, Brodhecker continues, "He talks to the governor… so he's very well informed and educated on the issues… we try to educate the legislators as well, but when you get people from a district in, let's say Newark or Hoboken, who [do]n't have a clue about agriculture, they may not be as receptive to the Department of Ag."

The bill, which passed 60-5 in the Assembly and 29-4 in the Senate, was co-sponsored by Republican Robert D. Clifton of New Jersey's 12th Legislative District, which is home to places like Allentown, known for its farms. In response to Brodhecker's comments, Matt Dominguez of the Humane Society wondered of Christie's conversations with the Secretary of Agriculture, "What was told to him that was so convincing but was not convincing to his own party, and to all of those legislators in the legislature? They weren't told anything different." The Secretary of Agriculture did not respond to a request for comment.

In Governor Christie's statement to the Senate regarding his veto, he used as justification the fact that two national groups, the American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, had not endorsed the ban on the crates. But in New Jersey, a coalition of 100 veterinarians supported S.1921, and they were joined by 32 New Jersey family farmers and 22 animal protection groups: The Animal Welfare Association, the NJSPCA, the Animal Alliance, The Animal Welfare Federation of New Jersey, the Monmouth County SPCA, People For Animals, In Defense of Animals, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, Compassion in World Farming, the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association, the Humane League, Mercy for Animals, the ASPCA, Farm Forward, Farm Sanctuary, Compassion Over Killing, the WSPA and the Animal Welfare Institute.

The governor, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment, said in his statement that he would defer to the state Department of Agriculture on matters concerning the humane treatment of livestock.

Asked about his support for gestation crates, Brodhecker says, "They're often referred to as a 'raised cage' where the sow's in one confined area and the piglets have access to free space that the sow can't lay on. That's the purpose of the crate, is to save the piglets so the sow doesn't lay on them." Supporters of gestation crates often conflate gestation crates and farrowing crates in what Dominguez referred to as "an attempt to muddy the water." Gestation crates, as the name indicates, are used to contain sows during pregnancy. Farrowing crates are used after the pig gives birth to confine and separate them from their piglets.

The secrecy surrounding factory farms that use gestation crates, Brodhecker told me, isn't secrecy at all. These types of facilities, he claimed, are highly sterilized and a farmer wouldn't want "anything on my clothes, shoes to come onto his farm and run the risk of infecting his animals." But animal protection advocates counter that factory farm animals are highly susceptible to infection because of their confinement, which weakens their immune systems, turning usually non-life-threatening health issues like urinary tract infections into major killers. Asked about the issue, Brodhecker said,"I would have to look more into that and I don't believe that that's a factual statement."

* *

When news of the Iowa "heavy hitters" dinner broke in 2011, one of Christie's advisers, Mike DuHaime, told The Des Moines Register that the governor agreed to the meeting as a mark of respect. Both for Iowa Governor Terry Branstad and for someone on the guest list, a millionaire by the name of Bruce Rastetter.

Rastetter, who met Christie at a fundraiser for Branstad in Iowa the previous year, told the press, "There isn't anyone like Chris Christie on the national scene for Republicans… And so we believe that he, or someone like him, running for president is very important at this critical time in our country… He clearly understands smaller government… certainly, all the things I and those accompanying me care about."

Rastetter, a farm boy with a crooked smile and a pink complexion, founded Heartland Pork Enterprises in 1994. The company became the second largest pork producer in Iowa, boasting a stable of over 60,000 pigs. The 1990s saw a rapid decline in the number of independent pig farmers in America due to industrialized production like the sort Rastetter oversaw. Joe Maxwell, member of the HSUS and one of the remaining such farmers from Missouri, told me, "It has been by design that Big Pork has controlled the market, abused the market, abused the farmer, abused the animals and abused the land in order to just drive the animals into buildings and the farmers off the land." Four years after Rastetter started his pork business, the number of mega hog producers in the U.S. - those controlling over 10,000 sows - had risen from 31 to 50, and the number controlling half that amount had inflated from barely 1,000 to nearly 2,000. It was inevitable that with that kind of growth, supply would at some point outweigh demand, and in 1998, it finally happened. The year saw an unprecedented annual increase of 10% in pork production, which led to what is now described as an industry-wide "sudden, severe economic storm.” Hog prices had fallen to their lowest price in 35 years. Recalling the event, Maxwell sighed, "In 1998, many hog farmers in America went broke."

The rule of big agriculture, Maxwell explained, means that farmers like him - however many left there are - are almost powerless. In the U.S., there is something called the commodity checkoff program. Farmers who produce products to be sold commercially pay a mandatory "checkoff," to their respective organization like the National Honey Board, the American Lamb Board or, in Maxwell's case, the National Pork Board. The money taken out of farmers' checks at the time of sale goes to advertise their commodity with campaigns like "Got Milk?", "The Incredible, Edible Egg" , and "Pork. The Other White Meat." Maxwell charges that although the National Pork Board claimed they "put up a firewall" to prevent checkoff dollars being used for lobbying, "That's just a joke." Without the checkoff funds "they couldn't even keep their office open in Washington, D.C.," he told me. And all of that lobbying that Maxwell says his dollars help carry out goes to work against his interests and the interests of other independent pig farmers. "The NPPC, since their creation, has seen almost 90% of pig farmers go bankrupt in the United States," he said. He continued, a cool, sarcastic tone overcoming his previously warm one, "They've done an outstanding job. I really commend them for their hard work."

Six years after the events of 1998, Rastetter's Heartland Pork Enterprises was purchased by Minnesota-based Christensen Farms. Christensen Farms' use of gestation crates came under fire when, in 2012, the company was the target of an undercover video that showed the cages being used inside their production plants.

But at the time Heartland Pork Enterprises was acquired, Rastetter was already on his way to dominating his next industry: ethanol. He co-founded Hawkeye Energy Holdings Co., which grew to control four large ethanol plants across the state, becoming one of the largest producers in the United States. When the ethanol business hit hard times, all four plants filed for bankruptcy, after which they were bought by Flint Hills, a subsidiary of Koch Industries.

With an established network of business leaders at his disposal, Rastetter set his sights on becoming a GOP kingmaker. In 2007, he provided seed money to Nick Ryan, a longtime adviser to former congressman Jim Nussle (R-IA), to found The American Future Fund. AFF is 501(c)(4), meaning it is tax exempt and it does not have to disclose its donors. The group's stated mission is "to provide Americans with a conservative and free market viewpoint to have a mechanism to communicate and advocate on the issues that most interest and concern them." Speaking to The New York Times in 2010, Rastetter's lawyer, Daniel L. Stockdale, said that he had not provided additional funding to AFF since its founding and that "he does not feel that he should reveal the size of prior contributions." However, in 2009, Rastetter donated $5,000 to The American Future Fund's political action committee.

From 2011 to 2012, AFF spent a total of $24,628,904 on advertisements, $11.3 million of which went to support Mitt Romney alone and nearly $7 million of which was used to oppose Barack Obama. An additional $3.1 million was used to oppose Democrats, mostly women, in Arizona (Kyrsten Sinema and Ann Kirkpatrick), South Carolina (Julia Brownley), New Mexico (Martin Heinrich) and Wisconsin (Tammy Baldwin). During the 2011 to 2012 period, the group also spent over $4 million to oppose gay marriage in California.

AFF is tied to Freedom Partners, one of the biggest spending political entities to take part in the 2012 cycle. FP, a 501(c )(6), seemingly functions as a money trough for large GOP donors. Since its founding in 2011, it has raised $256 million and spent $236 million, all of which has gone to political nonprofits like the Koch Brothers' Americans for Prosperity, to which it gave $32.3 million. AFF received a donation of $13.6 million from the group.

In the fall of 2012, Christie traveled to Iowa fundraising for two of AFF's donation recipients, U.S. Representatives Steven King and Tom Latham, both of whom would go on to vote against providing disaster relief for New Jersey in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

Branstad, who was first elected governor of Iowa in 1983, was reportedly convinced to seek a fifth term by Rastetter. After he filed his papers to run in October 2009, Rastetter became his biggest donor, contributing over $160,000 to the campaign. When he was elected, he appointed Rastetter to the Iowa Board of Regents. Governor Branstad serves on the board of The American Future Fund.

In 2011, a Mercy for Animals activist went undercover at Iowa's Sparboe Farms, one of the largest egg producers in the U.S. The footage obtained during the investigation showed conditions so abusive and unsanitary, that when the report aired on ABC News, McDonald's and Target - two of Sparboe's biggest customers - cancelled their contracts with the company. A year later, Governor Branstad signed into law an "ag gag" bill that made it a crime for any potential farm worker to lie about being a member of an animal rights group.

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A year after he was so publicly courted to lead the Republican Party to the White House, Governor Christie found himself in another taxpayer-funded helicopter, this one far more impressive (and costly) than his own. Hurricane Sandy had destroyed much of New Jersey's greatest revenue source -- its shore -- and from Marine One, Christie surveyed the damage with President Obama by his side.

Politically, the timing could not have been worse. With the presidential election just days away, the governor's bipartisan display undermined Republican efforts to demonize Obama. And when Romney's loss came, Christie's days as the undisputed conservative darling were over.

"He weighs what his interests are against New Jersey's interests…he'll play to the national audience who'll help his presidential campaign," Senator Lesniak told me.

2012 was the most expensive presidential election in American history. Together, President Obama and Mitt Romney, both of whom declined public financing, raised over $2 billion. Super PACs and political nonprofits spent hundreds of millions more. Political organizations like the American Future Fund, Freedom Partners and Americans For Prosperity are what will make or break any Republican candidate in the next election. When the GOP follows the money trail leading to the 2016 caucuses, Governor Christie needs to make sure that they arrive at his feet.

"After the pre-election love for Obama, Christie really needs to reestablish himself with the Midwest conservative money," a presidential election political analyst told me. "He really needs to mend fences in Iowa."

Fences, or gestation crates.

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Update: An effort led by Senator Raymond Lesniak to override Governor Chris Christie's veto of S.1921 is currently underway. Of the override, Matt Dominguez of the Humane Society of the United States says, "what advocates on the ground in New Jersey are asking for, and Senator Lesniak is asking for, are for legislators to just reaffirm their vote for animal protection."